An article about Black Iris, originally published in 2010 in Scion Magazine. Story by Caroline McCloskey.
The life of an indie rock musician has its perks—touring the moderately sized clubs of the world, the slavish devotion of a small segment of the population (until they find something else to salivate over), all vintage everything—but a steady income generally isn’t one of them. With this reality in mind, in 2004 friends and sometime bandmates Daron Hollowell, Justin Bailey and Dave Jackson listened to the suggestion of friends who worked at an ad giant in their hometown of Richmond, Virginia and started writing original music for commercials on the side. After the experiment proved successful, they kept it going—not to supplant their personal projects, but as a means to support them. “At that time in advertising, there were a lot of people licensing tracks from indie and underground bands,” says Hollowell. “We said, We come from this world, it seems like there’s a market for the kind of music we make. We thought if we teamed up with some of the bands and people we’d been touring with we could start an indie rock music house that employs them.”
Of course, there was no way of anticipating the demand this side project would generate. What began with a ProTools setup in a Hollowell’s closet has blossomed into Black Iris, a collective of musical talent with outposts in Richmond, New York and Los Angeles that has created work for Sharp, Gatorade and Al Gore’s We initiative. With a stable of three full-time composers and a couple dozen freelance artists, Black Iris has enough depth to produce original music in genres ranging from acoustic rock to hip-hop. “I think that because of things like TiVo and people not being forced to watch advertising, content needs to be really entertaining in its own right if anyone’s going to pay attention to it,” says Hollowell. “That’s led people to want to do excellent, creative work in advertising. They want to work with people they feel are coming from a place that’s authentic and not just bringing just cookie cutter ad music to the table.”
As musicians themselves, the founders understood the ambivalence some artists might feel about using their personal work for corporate clients; consequently, almost all of Black Iris’ ad work is original commissions made by the collective rather than pre-existing songs by a particular artist. Still they are interested creating outlets for their own talents and in 2008 launched their own label featuring artists that work on their ad material, putting out 7-inches from bands including Best Coast, Bad Veins and Foreign Born.
Beyond providing musicians with some extra income, working with big companies has yielded unexpected benefits. “One thing that was surprising to us is how creatively rewarding it’s been to write the stuff on the ad side,” Hollowell says. “You’re working in so many different styles and challenged to do so many different things, it actually feeds your art as well.”